Politico

How Musk could — and couldn't — transform Twitter


Few would take issue with Elon Musk’s argument that free speech is essential to democracy. But what does “free speech” mean in an era when automatically generated spam would overwhelm inboxes if it wasn’t filtered, and when social media newsfeeds are firehoses of algorithmically sorted content?

Experts say Musk will soon discover that it’s not easy to moderate a social media platform, now that he’s reached an agreement to buy Twitter.

“There can be tweaks at the margins,” said Jeff Kosseff, a professor at the U.S. Naval Academy and an expert in online content moderation. “But I think what he might soon find is that so much of what actually is moderated is content very few people think should be online.” Furthermore, Twitter would risk being removed from the Apple and Google app stores if it violated their terms of service.

But Musk’s recent comments suggest he’s poised to significantly overhaul how Twitter decides what (and who) to allow on its platform. The Tesla and SpaceX CEO will almost certainly be more permissive than current leadership, but he’s been cagey about specific changes.

What could happen to Twitter’s content rules under Musk’s ownership? Here are a few possibilities:

Musk opens the floodgates

Eric Goldman, a professor at Santa Clara University School of Law, said any attempt by Musk to impose a maximalist free-speech regime will backfire, inundating users with objectionable content that could cause them to flee the platform.

“The mainstream market wants a more sanitized version of Twitter, not a less sanitized one,” Goldman said. He added that even if Musk doesn’t decide to allow things like spam, hate speech or violent content, the potential exodus of Twitter’s moderation team in the wake of Musk’s takeover would still open the platform to a flood of unpleasantness.

“We’ve seen a number of acquisitions of social media companies fail — and fail pretty miserably,” Goldman said, pointing to Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp’s acquisition of MySpace and Yahoo’s purchase of Tumblr.

“Musk could’ve bought Gab, Parler or even Truth Social for a tiny fraction of what it cost to buy Twitter,” Goldman said. “If he turns Twitter into Gab, Parler or Truth Social, Twitter’s going to be worth what they’re worth.” And it could face the same problems — Parler was removed from Apple’s App Store in January 2021 for violating its moderation rules before being allowed back in May of that year.

He dumps deplatforming

Zeve Sanderson, the executive director at NYU’s Center for Social Media and Politics, said Musk may decide it’s too complicated to throw out or overhaul Twitter’s sliding scale of acceptable speech. But the company’s practice of suspending or banning repeat offenders is a “binary” choice that’s much less complicated — and Musk could conceivably scrap it altogether.

“I think we will likely see starker changes there,” Sanderson said.

He just makes tiny tweaks

Some experts said it’s possible — perhaps even likely — that little will change beyond a few shifts at the margins related to political speech. “What we’re looking at are disputes over a small amount of the content that is moderated,” Kosseff said.

Of course, even a few posts can have a big impact — particularly when it comes to things like misinformation or hateful content, and especially when they’re spread by high-profile political figures. Until Musk takes over and digs into the details, it’s hard to know how thoroughly he plans to upend Twitter’s moderation rules (even if Jack Dorsey, Twitter’s former CEO, trusts Musk’s ownership is “the right path”).

This article was first published in today’s Morning Tech“,”_id”:”00000180-6659-dd36-a38c-675dedf70000″,”_type”:”02ec1f82-5e56-3b8c-af6e-6fc7c8772266″}”>Morning Tech, our subscriber-only newsletter that delivers all the tech news you need to your inbox at 6 a.m. every weekday.

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